Prison can be liberating. At least, so suggests the fascinating 60-year retrospective of paintings, drawings, installations and -- most compelling -- sculptures by New York artist Louise Bourgeois at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The incarceration of Bourgeois, now 96, has been psychic. Her famous personal story -- growing up after World War I in a comfortable French household with a governess who was, to her mother’s and her siblings’ agonized knowledge, also her father’s mistress -- gave Bourgeois a deep reservoir of conflicted feelings about sex and the sexes, on which her work has steadily drawn. Rage and ridicule, fear and fantasy, sensuality and repulsiveness, determination and despair, power and fragility are just some of the discordant conditions that eddy and swirl through her productively untidy work.
MOCA’s show is installed in a loose chronology, beginning after Bourgeois moved from Paris to New York in 1938 following marriage to art historian Robert Goldwater, whose field was the relationship between tribal arts and Modern painting and sculpture and whose prominence steadily grew. (He died in 1973.) The earliest works are several rather clumsy paintings from 1946-47 that show an odd amalgamation between a woman’s body and a house.
The paintings are tall and skinny. Each one shows an imposing domicile grafted onto a woman’s lower torso, with stairways, darkened windows and enigmatic protuberances. They might be clumsy, but they clearly articulate two primary aspects of Bourgeois’ self-styled prison.
An artist left out
First, they are Surrealist. The paintings evoke sexuality and darkly emotional states of mind, a representational program that in postwar New York was considered hopelessly old-fashioned. Surrealism, a European movement of the previous quarter-century, was out of date for the progressive Americanism then being championed as the authentic avant-garde.
Second, they have domestic subject matter. It is underscored in the series’ French title -- “Femme Maison” -- literally “woman home” or, colloquially, housewife. In postwar society, men returning from the battlefront edged Rosie the Riveter back into the kitchen; Bourgeois’ domestic subject removed the paintings from a territory thought essential for major art, which was not private and feminine but public and masculine -- a world of dramatic action.
Bourgeois has talked about how the young, emerging New York art world of the late 1930s through the 1950s commonly assigned social roles that made things impossible for her as an artist. Women were often (though not exclusively) the founding museum trustees and the Modern art dealers, so they bought and sold the “important” artistic production of worldly men. That left her out.
Across the way from these paintings in MOCA’s first gallery is a 1997 sculptural installation featuring her signature image, “Spider.” A nearly 15-foot-tall steel arachnid straddles a circular steel-mesh cage; the spider has deposited her glass “eggs” into a basket poised high above a tatty, tapestry-covered chair. Enigmatic objects are suspended from the cage on wire or chain -- two bits of bone with the marrow gone; a glass perfume bottle; a locket and a pocket watch; a phallic paddle studded with stick-pin jewelry; and fragments of worn and abraded tapestry.
Autobiography drives Bourgeois’ work. For example, her family worked in the tapestry repair business, reweaving by hand damaged textiles that picture lost worlds and embody ruined dreams. And her censorious father is perhaps implied by the paddle, with its cluster of stick-pins and overtones of punishment.
The spider-cage sculpture is as much a Surrealist femme maison as the paintings from three decades earlier. But its sophisticated forms, not to mention the sheer artistic ambition, are of an entirely different order. The spider is gorgeously crafted, an animated form resting lightly on the floor, its role as both fertile mother and weaver of webs simple to infer. And the cage over which the buoyant spider presides is part shelter and part prison, a place of comfortable refuge upholstered with worn familiarity as well as a decaying and inescapable trap.
How did Bourgeois get from the paintings to the sculpture? The show suggests a couple of avenues.
Around the same time that she made the paintings, she was making totems of painted wood. No doubt related to her husband’s work in tribal art, these rudimentary sculptures, which she calls “Personages,” have great appeal.
But they also seem conventional, as much a part of the larger postwar movement toward wiping the slate of Western art clean and starting from scratch as the work of countless artists -- Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Tobey and many more.
So Bourgeois stopped. She mostly gave up making art for the second half of the 1950s. The hiatus was a good idea, because art and the art world began to change dramatically in the 1960s.
One thing that fell apart was a faith in art’s linear stylistic progress, which had made her distinctive brand of frank Surrealism seem retrograde. Slowly but surely, her best work began to appear as simply remarkable.
The show’s first singular achievement is a large 1967 sculpture titled “Sleep II,” a fat, blunt, flaccid but potentially dynamic phallus carved from a large block of pristine white marble and resting on a low pedestal made from a chunky pair of wooden beams. Brancusi is there, and so are Minimalists such as Carl Andre and Post-Minimalists such as Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman.
But so is Michelangelo, his iconic marble figure of a heroic David here denatured and demythologized. Bourgeois was 56 when she carved it. Other nearby works in plaster, latex and bronze from the 1960s demonstrate a mature artist who is also attuned to art’s newest developments. The sculptures in this gallery set the ambitious bar for the rest of the exhibition.
It also includes her first installation, a diorama that contains a veiled narrative of domestic terror in which an abstract form that represents a father figure is torn apart and consumed at the family dinner table. Bourgeois’ installations are her most problematic works, often heavy-handed and obscure to the point of grandiloquence. Just five are in the show.
Organized by London’s Tate Modern in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, this is Bourgeois’ first retrospective since the Museum of Modern Art’s in 1982 (the flagship museum’s first ever for a woman). The show is quite compact, with 105 works spanning six decades. The checklist is different for each of the five venues on the extensive tour, but MOCA’s selection is certainly comprehensive.
Near the end, the phrase “Art is a guaranty of sanity” is written with great deliberation in pencil on a simple sheet of pink paper, its status as a coded drawing inviolable. The work is dated 2000 and so can safely be said to represent a lifetime of thoughtful practice. Its aphoristic suggestion of an undertaking to answer for the payment of a debt -- a guaranty -- resonates throughout the exhibition.
The sentiment is the antithesis of victimization, in which Bourgeois acknowledges the hideousness of common abuse and, rather than stoically rise above it, as if some plaster saint, instead endeavors to live through it to become a survivor.
A better definition of art would be hard to conjure.
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends Jan. 25.
Contact: (213) 626-6222